Ever since Inception first faded to black, everyone in the
film-going world started chattering about their own interpretations of
the ending in particular and the movie as a whole. Having just seen the
movie a second time, I feel ready to type down my own opinions on the
matter. Naturally, there are HUGE SPOILERS ahead, so I urge you not to
read further unless you’ve seen the movie.

In fact, I’d urge you to see the movie as quickly as possible if you
haven’t already. And to see it again if you have.


There are two articles that pressed me to re-watch this film with an
eye toward writing another blog entry. The first was this article from my
favorite AICN correspondent, Massawyrm. He makes a very intriguing case
that Inception is entirely on the level and that the top does
fall at the end on the grounds that otherwise, the movie would be about
nothing. The second was this
from Devin Faraci, arguably the most prominent writer at
CHUD. He argues that every single moment in the film is a dream, yet
that doesn’t mean that the film is about nothing. After all, the movie
is about Cobb’s catharsis, and the entire point of movies and stories is
that fake redemption can feel every bit as good as real-life

There are two other scenarios in between, both of which are discussed
by Massawyrm. However, the two outcomes both rely heavily on the
movie’s concept of Limbo, the explanation of which is so rushed, so
dense and so left open to interpretation that I really don’t feel
capable of discussing the topic comfortably just yet. I’ll only say that
while the movie does leave open the possibility of Cobb and Saito
killing themselves to escape Limbo — as Cobb and Mal once did — it’s
left unclear how this is possible while under the sedation that sent
them into Limbo to begin with. Moreover, if the sedation didn’t allow
them to wake up after dying in Limbo, then where would it send them
instead? There are way too many questions here for my liking, but since
there’s some precedence of escape from Limbo and absolutely no evidence
of a “sub-Limbo,” I’m forced to assume that Cobb and Saito did indeed
somehow escape. I can’t see how they wouldn’t make the effort,
considering how determined Saito was to keep his end of the bargain once
he remembered it.

That leaves us with the “all or nothing” dilemma. Was everything a
dream or was the entire movie on the level? Faraci presents a
fascinating case for the former, and Massawyrm’s arguments only further
establish the need for structure and closure in fiction. However, I do
have many, many issues with Faraci’s article and with the general
interpretation that everything in the movie is unreal.

For starters, it’s been argued that the top is unreliable because it
used to belong to Mal. I consider this nonsense. When Arthur is
explaining the concept of totems, he explains that they work because
each totem has its own unique feel and weight in the real world, known
only to its owner, and that allowing someone to touch someone else’s
totem would “defeat the point.” It’s thus heavily implied that someone
with tactile knowledge of someone else’s totem could subconsiously
tamper with its operation and provide a skewed result. In Cobb’s case,
the only other person who has such knowledge of the top (that we know
of) is Mal. Who is, in fact, deceased. All that’s left of her is the
subconscious manifestation of Cobb’s guilt who attempts to undermine his
perceptions of reality without ever once mentioning the damned top. She
can’t affect it in the real world and there’s no evidence to suggest
that she’s able to affect the top in the dream world or interested in
doing so. The point is thus moot.

Faraci also argues that “even the basics of the dream sharing
technology is unbelievably vague,” using this as further evidence.
BULLSHIT. The dream-sharing briefcase neither got nor required any more
explanation than Doc Brown’s flux capacitor, the transporter of Star
Trek, the spice melange, Doctor Who‘s sonic screwdriver, the
memory-wiping surgery of Lacuna Inc. or any application of artificial
gravity ever. Science fiction devices that work entirely because the
premise needs them to are a staple of the genre. This is just one more.

Another bit of evidence presented is the fact that if the entire
movie was in Cobb’s head, it would go a long way toward explaining some
of the movie’s plot holes and inconsistencies. Faraci cites the scene in
which Cobb and Mal are talking to each other from across an alleyway
(did she really rent out or break into the room across?), but I prefer
Saito’s inexplicable ability to expunge a murder charge with a
twenty-minute phone call, as well as his weak-sauce rationale for why
closing his competitor would be good for the world. Michael Caine’s
ability to go from Paris to L.A. in time to meet Cobb back home is
another favorite. Yes, these plot deficiencies and many more could be
argued away on the basis that it’s not real… but why would anyone do
such a thing?!

Imagine that you’ve just finished a movie/TV show/story and you’re
left with innumerable questions as to how the story makes any lick of
sense. Now imagine that a friend, a film critic or even the storyteller
him/herself could only answer your questions by saying “Chill out, it’s
just a story,” or “It doesn’t matter, none of it’s real.” Worse yet,
suppose that the author had written him/herself out of a very tight
corner with that infamous five-word ending, “And then I woke up.” Since
when did any of these become valid excuses for storytelling
deficiencies? I simply cannot believe that any respectable movie critic
or scholar would give plot holes and implausibilities a free pass based
solely on the possibility that everything seen is not real.

Of course, none of this answers the central question: Was the movie a
dream or not? This is the question that was on my mind through the
entire running time of my second viewing, yet it wasn’t until I walked
out that I had an epiphany: This movie is not told from Cobb’s point of
view. Unlike Shutter Island, in which every frame was seen
through DiCaprio’s eyes, there are numerous scenes (Yusuf’s car chase,
the anti-gravity hallway fight, Fischer Jr.’s acceptance of the
inception, Arthur training Ariadne on paradoxical structures, the
kissing joke, etc.) in which he has absolutely no role. Are these other
characters simply projections of Cobb’s subconscious, acting out their
parts and motivations when Cobb himself isn’t looking? I find that very
doubtful. All of the other projections we see are completely blank and
more or less docile, rarely gaining anything that resembles a
personality and even then, only in the presence of a living mind. This
leads me to believe that if the whole movie is indeed a dream, then it’s
not a dream from a first-person POV, but from a third-person POV.

So who is the dreamer, then? Cobb? Or is this a shared dreaming
experience amongst all of the characters? Hell, if the entire movie is a
dream, then what proof do we have that they even exist? How do we know
that extraction, dream-sharing and inception really exist? For all we
know, the entire movie, all of its characters and all of its story ideas
could have been pure fiction, dreamed entirely by some stranger for
entertainment purposes.

Oh, wait. We actually know that to be true: The stranger’s name is
Christopher Nolan.

Discounting this, as we would for any other movie, I’m left to
believe that the top does fall. As further evidence, I submit James and
Phillipa. Faraci states that they’re wearing the exact same clothes as
in all of Cobb’s other visions of them, but that’s not entirely true.
They’re clearly wearing different shoes during the end and I’m pretty
sure that James is wearing a different pattern of plaid. More
importantly, Cobb repeatedly uses the kids as a totem of his own. Cobb
spends the last of his days with Mal trying to convince her that James
and Phillipa are real while Mal is convinced that they aren’t. Ever
since then, the prospect of seeing his kids’ faces has been the only
thing driving Cobb. It’s the only thing he has left to live for in the
real world. Moreover, after all those years of being haunted by the
backs of their heads and re-living that one memory in every one of his
dreams, I’d think that his subconscious might have filled in those
blanks long ago if it had the power to do so. Therefore, I’d argue that
Cobb left the top behind because he didn’t need it anymore. The fact
that he saw his kids’ faces is all the proof he needs.

Now, I’m not going to pretend that it’s the end-all, be-all answer.
I’m also aware that this interpretation would leave the movie with
several plot deficiencies, but I don’t think that makes it a worse
movie. I said in my past write-up that Nolan covers the story’s weak
spots with the skill of a storytelling grandmaster and I stand by that.
He crafted a story of two men reconciling with their respective
families, wrapped in a dazzling, high-concept heist movie and filled
with more ideas and clues than could be sorted through with a dozen

Inception was clearly built with ambiguity in mind and that’s
going to make finding a final, true answer nigh-impossible. From the
nightmarish visuals of the Mumbasa chase to the scarce definitions of
Limbo to the kids’ different shoes, it’s all about which details you
choose to ignore and which blanks you fill in for yourself.

If we shadows have offended….”